Series, part 6: Highly versatile jack of (almost) all trades
Bay Markus Weber and Guido Deußing
Once the war was lost and Nazi Germany collapsed, the victorious Allied powers switched acrylic from primarily military purposes to exclusively civil purposes. The versatility of its properties soon opened up new application areas and markets for polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA). In the course of the “economic miracle” experienced in West Germany, it caused a sensation in such products as those given the nickname “Schneewittschensarg” (“Snow White’s coffin”), while East Germany manufactured acrylic of its own from 1958 onwards in the context of an ambitious chemical programme. The success story of acrylic continues to this day – in automotive manufacturing, medical engineering or optoelectronics – in spite of all economic, political or corporate upheavals: a story involving the “ongoing renaissance of a product with a long tradition” (Wittig 2007, 105).
8. May 1945 was “Zero Hour” for Germany. The unconditional capitulation of the armed forces sealed the overdue end of “total” war, which had cost millions of people their lives, had brought unspeakable suffering and had devastated large swathes of Europe. The war was attributable to the expansion plans of the Nazi terror regime, which now collapsed like a house of cards following the country’s defeat.
“Zero hour” stood for tabula rasa (= a “clean slate”) and required a break with the disastrous past and a radical new start. It created mixed feelings, among both the hardliners and those who had longed for the war to end and experienced 8. May as “liberation day”, because all of them faced an uncertain future. There was not much to be hopeful about as far as the present was concerned: in the summer of 1945, the victorious Allied powers concluded the “Potsdam Agreement”, in which they arranged to divide post-war Germany up into occupation zones and to restrict its autonomy, not least of all at the economic level. These moves focussed on dismantling industrial machinery and taking it out of the country as compensation for losses suffered during the war, on demilitarising Germany and on destroying its armaments industry. This was accompanied at the political level by lessons in democracy – quasi to prevent dictatorship in future – which, as we know now, produced very different results in the western and eastern parts of the country.
Three locations, three zones
What impact did “Zero Hour” have on Röhm & Haas and its production of acrylic? During the World War, the company “lost all the corporate interests, patents, trademarks and licensing rights it held outside Germany” (Wittig 2007, 74). Now, in post-war Germany, the three production locations found themselves in three different occupation zones:
The headquarters in Darmstadt was in the zone occupied by the Americans and the US military government immediately issued a ban on production there, which was reversed again to some extent on 17. October 1945 (Wittig 2007, 63-64).
The plant in Worms was in the zone occupied by the French and was seized by the military government there on 15. July 1946 (Wittig 2007, 63).
The plant in Mittenwalde near Berlin “had already been dismantled completely by the Soviet occupying forces in July 1945 […] and had been taken away in about 160 railway wagons by the end of August” (Wittig 2007, 63; further details in our separate article “Acrylic in East Germany”).
“The Americans basically tried […] to obtain the existing know-how too. The dismantling exercises were comparatively limited, however” (Wittig 2007, 63). A period of considerable uncertainty began in Darmstadt in the autumn of 1947, on the other hand, because “the dismantling list included the […] undestroyed monomer production facilities, on which the entire plastic manufacturing operations of the company depended” (Wittig 2007, 64). The Americans did not implement their plan, however, and the company management headed by Otto Röhm junior (1912-2004) was able to breathe a sigh of relief (Wittig 2007, 65). Following the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany, the three western allies USA, France and Great Britain abandoned their dismantling policy once and for all on 22. November 1949 in the context of the Petersberg Agreement.
Backlash due to competition
The currency reform implemented in June 1948 stabilised monetary value and led to an economic upswing, which culminated in what came to be known as the “economic miracle” in the 1950s. Röhm & Haas was, however, handicapped by the fact that the acrylic patents expired in 1952 (Wittig 2007, 66 and 68), so that the company had to share the acrylic market with “about 15” rivals from then on (Wittig 2007, 77). The consequence: “The price of a square metre of acrylic decreased by over 40 per cent between the currency reform and 1954” (Wittig 2007, 66). In this difficult situation, Röhm & Haas succeeded in exploiting its central competitive edge of supplying “all methacrylate chemistry products: semi-finished products, i.e. panels, pipes and rods, as well as moulding compounds (= granulate, editor’s note), lacquer raw materials, dispersions and, not least of all, the monomers themselves” (Wittig 2007, 77). For the company to continue operating successfully on the market, acrylic needed “to be processed more efficiently and manufactured inexpensively. What had a decisive impact was the fundamental improvement in the moulding compounds, which led to emphatic technological progress. […] With the help of what were known as “modulators”, which were added to the monomers during polymerisation in blocks or pearls, it was now possible to control the length of the chain molecules and thus the material properties” (Wittig 2007, 68).
To extend the range, “round rods, corrugated acrylic and new colours” (Wittig 2007, 68) were developed. In addition to this, unexpected sales potential was created by a change in demand, which “new properties of the material” (Buchholz 2007, 47) led to and which opened up innovative new application areas for the organic glass: “With the changes in living conditions in the post-war period […], people no longer focussed on its mysterious fascination; instead of this, they primarily appreciated its clarity and spruce appeal” (Buchholz 2007, 46-47). The construction industry and the architectural community were particularly productive sources of innovative applications. Translucent glazing, skylight domes, lamps and illuminated advertisements were soon impressive new features of facades, balconies and roofs (Wittig 2007, 68, Buchholz 2007, 46 and Trommsdorff 1976, 241). Neon signs made of acrylic were introduced successfully first of all at petrol stations (Buchholz 2007, 47). It was also used in miniature telephone boxes – because it was transparent and unbreakable and acted as effective soundproofing too (Buchholz 2007, 46-47). The transparent plastic had advantages in interior decoration too. The Finnish designer Eero Aarnio (*1932) celebrated acrylic as a magical material which made a solid object appear almost invisible (cf. Buchholz 2007, 71). In 1950s Germany, the Bauhaus students Wolfgang Tümpel (1903-1978) and Hans Hoffmann-Lederer (1899-1970) designed table, wall and hanging lamps made out of acrylic (Buchholz 2007, 51). The latter also used the material to design letter openers, magnifying glasses, jewellery and furniture. Hoffmann-Lederer’s acrylic magnifying glass No. 101 was awarded a gold medal at the Milan Triennial XI in 1957 (Buchholz 2007, 53-54). Last but not least, jukeboxes were encased in acrylic panelling: “The high transparency of the material […] is used effectively here to provide an appropriate ‘stage’ for the automatic playing of records” (Buchholz 2007, 47).
As before, household articles and consumer goods – from salad servers to coat hangers and jewellery – were manufactured from acrylic to a certain extent in the post-war period too. Initially, material left over from armament production (manufacturing of aircraft for the air force), which was banned and therefore discontinued, was mainly used for this purpose. It was not long before product design pioneers started to get involved, like the Bauhaus student Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1900-1990), who in the mid-1950s designed such products for WMF as a butter dish with an acrylic lid and a Cromagan base that has become a classic (Buchholz 2007, 67).
Messerschmitt, the aircraft manufacturer from Regensburg, made a virtue out of necessity and switched its attention to a small, three-wheeled car, which was presented at the Geneva Motor Show in 1953 and “a total of about 30,000 of which were produced and sold up to 1964” (Buchholz 2007, 46) as the Messerschmitt Kabinenroller (= “Cabin Scooter”). The story behind this:
“From 1948 onwards, the aircraft engineer Fritz Fend (1920-2000, editor’s note) supplied a single-seater with three wheels that was meant primarily for leg amputees. On the encouragement of Willy Messerschmitt (1898-1978, editor’s note), in 1952 he added another seat to his “Fend Flitzer”, modified the body and closed the vehicle with a plastic cover resembling a cockpit (that was lifted open at the side, editor’s note), which was ideal because of its low weight and resistance to weathering” (Buchholz 2007, 45).
The distinctive two-seater with a single-cylinder engine, a cylinder capacity of 173 cubic centimetres and nine (!) horsepower was popularly known as the “Schneewittchensarg” (= “Snow White’s coffin”), specifically because of the transparent acrylic cover that gave the driver and passenger perfect all-round visibility (Buchholz 2007, 54). A name that sounds scornful but was meant affectionately and alluded to the “fairy-tale” nature of the material, i.e. its high quality, its transparency and its lustre. Incidentally: the “Phonosuper SK 4”, a radio/record player combination from Braun, the company based in Kronberg im Taunus, that was designed by Hans Gugelot (1920-1965) and Dieter Rams (*1932) from the Ulm School of Design, also made a name for itself as “Schneewittchensarg” from 1956 onwards: “In the case of the SK 4, the expression (‘Schneewittchensarg’, editor’s note) is attributable to the transparent acrylic cover that reveals the turntable underneath” (Buchholz 2007, 54; see also ibid., 64).
In 1963, Röhm & Haas then came up with “King Acrylius” (Wittig 2007, 80) as an acrylic advertising character, probably because of the association between the “regal” material and the “royal” king. Apart from this, a king was no less “fabulous” than someone from the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm – the monarchy in Germany had, after all, already been abolished 45 years previously …
The sales that Röhm & Haas was in the meantime generating with acrylic were fabulous too: in 1959, the company exceeded revenues of DEM 100 million for the first time, “the proportion of this accounted for by plastics amounted to 86 per cent (Wittig 2007, 75). The boom experienced with organic glass did not decline as times changed either. On the contrary: when social trends and aesthetic preferences shifted, the versatile properties of the material were interpreted in a new way or the focus moved to qualities of the jack of (almost) all trades that had in the past been unknown or neglected. During the protest movement at the end of the 1960s (hippie culture, student revolts), young people discovered acrylic glass for themselves too: “The movement saw itself reflected in the plastics that could be moulded as required and that left unlimited scope for individual imagination and found them to be the ideal materials to express their visions and needs” (Buchholz 2007, 69).
Always in tune with the times
From understatement to decorative indulgence, from functionalism to hedonism, from technocratic austerity to visions of utopian escapism – acrylic kept up with every quantum leap. “It goes without saying that the new lifestyles were mirrored in the design of consumer goods made from acrylic too. The best example of this is the ‘Bubble Chair” (1968) by Eero Aarnio, a suspended hemisphere made of transparent PMMA, in which one can leave the pressures of everyday life behind dangling casually from the ceiling. It is no coincidence that the futuristic chair with its rich cushioning made of silver leather emulates the aesthetics of moon rockets and space stations – after all, where else could one escape to in order to leave social power struggles and patronisation behind more effectively than space, where no human beings live?” (Buchholz 2007, 70; see also ibid., 82).
But not every object that designers created and celebrated found its way out of its niche into the economy in general, no matter how spectacular it might be in each individual case. What lacked advantages for the user was soon abandoned by the media and was of no interest to the general public. Röhm & Haas tried to combine rational purposefulness with revolutionary design in its “Plexmobil bathroom based on the modular system, which followed the principle of built-in kitchens, […] an affordable furnishing range for style-conscious people in cramped living conditions” (Wittig 2007, 86; see also https://corporate.evonik.com/de/pages/article.aspx?articleId=25207), that was presented at the Munich construction trade fair in 1968: “Instead of concentrating tiresome hygiene procedures in cold, tiled ‘washrooms’, the aim was to transfer family life to a bathroom where body and soul found relaxation and regeneration between the shower, television and bar” (Wittig 2007, 86).
Acrylic – and all other plastics with it – suffered a temporary setback due to what became known as the oil crisis in the 1970s, which led to an economic recession. Sales of cast acrylic slumped, because it “was in competition with its own extruded material, which had in the meantime reached a very high quality level, and had in addition to share the market with particularly strong rivals” (Wittig 2007, 92). Business with the double-walled acrylic panelling that was introduced in 1971 continued to be good: “Cellular panelling with particularly good insulating properties and low weight”, which had been developed as greenhouse glazing; it could be used in addition as roofing for terraces and patios (Wittig 2007, 92). Triple-walled panelling was added to the range in 1980 (Wittig 2007, 92-93).
Röhm & Haas gave high priority to innovation, in order to safeguard sales and, if possible, to increase them. The challenge in this context was “to give PMMA new qualities without impacting the proven properties like resistance to ageing or weathering” (Wittig 2007, 93). The company succeeded, for example, in increasing the scratch and hail resistance of the material, thus making it even more attractive for greenhouses, conservatories, terraces and patios. “Since high resistance to ageing and weathering had its price, polycarbonate was used for noise barriers and cellular panelling, as a result of which the semi-finished product became less expensive. This plastic was very impact-resistant but considerably less resistant to ageing. Bayer AG supplied the polycarbonate granulate, which was called Makrolon” (Wittig 2007, 93), and Röhm & Haas established a joint venture with the company in 1973 which continued until 2003 (Wittig 2007, 94).
The company obtained a major commission for the Olympic Games in 1972:
As early as “1996 it was definite thatMunich would be the venue for the 1972 Olympic Games. The architecture firm Behnisch & Partner (in liaison with the architect Frei Otto [1925-2015], editor’s note) was commissioned to build the sports facilities, which were to be covered by a tented roof. When Röhm & Haas heard about this, the company championed the use of acrylic for this prestigious building project and invested substantial development resources to make it possible. The light permeability levels, the easy colouration of the material to provide protection from the sun, its particular fire properties and, last but not least, the process by which it was possible to attach the panels on a ‘floating’ basis – i.e. with scope to move – to the network of ropes supporting them prompted Olympia Baugesellschaft to give the commission to Röhm GmbH. Within 16 months, the company supplied about 90,000 m² of highly non-flammable acrylic to help in the creation of the landmark of the Olympic Games – the tented roof” (Wittig 2007, 86; see also Buchholz 2007, 72 and 75).
The Röhm family leaves
The 75th anniversary of the company’s foundation was capped in 1982 by an exhibition at Mathildenhöhe, the centre of the activities of the artists’ colony in Darmstadt (1899-1914) with its ensemble of magnificent art nouveau buildings: “Eleven artists displayed acrylic creations there that they had made at the factory” (Wittig 2007, 91). In 1985, there was another reason to celebrate: Röhm GmbH reached annual sales of DEM 1 billion (Wittig 2007, 94). Only four years later, in December 1989, an era ended: the Röhm family withdrew from the company and sold all of their shares to Hüls AG from Marl in Westphalia (Wittig 2007, 94-95).
Soon after this, the acrylic market started to become increasingly globalised, which increased competition. Due to a recession and rising raw material prices, Röhm GmbH made losses in 1994, 1995 and 1996 (Wittig 2007, 96). Excessively high production costs were made partly responsible for this. The management consultants McKinsey specified as a result that the company should “concentrate on the core business” (Wittig 2007, 97), which therefore involved a “strict focus on methacrylate chemistry” (Wittig 2007, 98): “The key players from now on were monomers, moulding compounds, semi-finished materials and polymers for lacquers, additives and – in combination with special monomers – reactive resins” (Wittig 2007, 98). The central response to the challenges of globalisation by Röhm GmbH was: “specialisation on individual customers’ requirements and high-tech applications” (Wittig 2007, 101).
Thanks to its light permeability, it was possible to use acrylic for photovoltaic systems (generation of electricity from solar energy) (Wittig 2007, 101 and 105). In 1996, a new plastic was added to the range, which was even more suitable for lamp housings and protective glazing than acrylic itself, thanks to its special heat and chemical resistance properties: polymethyl methacrylimide (PMMI, trade name: “Pleximid”, in the USA “Kamax) (Wittig 2007, 101).
Optoelectronics in the form of LCD flat screens for computers and televisions, mobile phone displays and LED lighting systems became another significant application area: “In order to satisfy the rapidly increasing demand for moulding compound granulate for the lighting modules required for this purpose, a new plant was built in co-operation with Forhouse Corporation (in Taichung, editor’s note) in Taiwan, which started production in the summer of 2007” (Wittig 2007, 101; see also ibid., 105 and https://history.evonik.com/sites/geschichte/de/erfindungen/plexiglas/)
Demand for acrylic from the automotive industry, which had been a major customer for moulding compound granulate for decades, increased as well, “because metal and glass components are being replaced by plastic to a growing extent in automotive manufacturing. Cars are lighter and consume less fuel as a result. Whereas acrylic moulding compounds have been used primarily for the covers of reversing lights in the past, new applications are being added, for example in body components like spoilers or roofs” (Wittig 2007, 105; see also ibid., 94).
Prostheses made of Plexidur
The potential offered by medical applications should not be forgotten, because acrylic is tolerated by the organism, i.e., it is not rejected by the immune system (Buchholz 2007, 139). Another advantage is that bacteria cling to it considerably less effectively than they do to porcelain, stainless steel and enamel, particularly after mechanical stresses in everyday use (Buchholz 2007, 139). Acrylic is therefore an obvious choice for orthopedic applications and has been used for them since as long ago as the end of the 1930s, with particular emphasis on prosthetic joints. Since material robustness is especially important here, Dr Walter Bauer (see part 2 of this series), the head chemist at Röhm, developed “Plexidur”, which was entered in the trademark register on 20. August 1942 with the number 548289. What was involved here was a copolymer consisting of “40 to 80 per cent by weight of acrylic acid nitrile and, correspondingly, 60 to 20 per cent by weight of methacrylic acid esters of lower alcohols”, as is stated in the patent specification “Production of plastics with greater hardness and strength” (DRP 700176 of 23. March 1937). The patent specification also states:
“The invention relates to acrylic copolymers that have a cross-section of strength properties that has never been achieved before, particularly where hardness as well as impact, tension, pressure and heat resistance are concerned. […] Other polymerisable compounds can be included in polymerisation too, such as acrylic acid, acrylic acid esters, methacrylic acid, higher methacrylic acid esters, methacrylic acid amide, methacrylic acid nitrile, vinyl chloride, vinyl acetate etc. Further special benefits can be reached by adding these compounds; it should be mentioned by way of example that the addition of about 10 to 20% of acrylic acid butyl ester improves the clarity of the copolymer and increases impact bending strength, while the hardness level decreases” (Ackermann 1967, 77-78).
There was, however, a downside:
“A number of problems are encountered in the production of consistent polymers, e.g. blocks, by polymerisation of the blends containing acrylic acid nitrile. […] When the standard polymerisation processes for acrylic resins are applied to the blends specified in this invention, the results are […] regularly discoloured and cloudy to opaque polymers, which is apparently attributable to the different polymerisation speeds of the individual components, so that not only copolymerisation occurs but also to some extent the formation of polymers of individual components” (Ackermann 1967, 78).
In practice, Plexidur was “considerably better than acrylic […] as far as impact bending resistance, long-term resilience and solvent resistance were concerned”, but “it polymerised unpredictably even when minor changes were made to the blending ratio. It was in addition substantially more expensive” (Wittig 2007, 73). Even so, Plexidur survived for a good five decades before the company removed it from the range and replaced it by one of the third-party plastics that supplemented the company’s in-house portfolio (Wittig 2007, 94).
Röhm & Haas had been quick to obtain a patent for “prostheses for dental purposes” that were made from acrylic (DRP 652821 of 20. September 1935; inventor: Dr Walter Bauer). The methacrylic resins in dental engineering replaced rubber prostheses and were also used as denture and dental repair material (Ackermann 1967, 61, 64-65 and 242).
Ophthalmology made and continues to make use of contact lenses and artificial lenses made of acrylic (Buchholz 2007, 139). And since 1953 polymethyl methacrylate has had its place as a tablet coating agent in pharmacology, where it has the effect of making sure that the active substance of the medicine is not released until it reaches the intestines rather than before in the stomach (Wittig 2007, 73 u. 98).
Plexiglas has a bright future
The potential applications for organic glass do not appear to be exhausted anywhere in such areas as optoelectronics, automotive manufacturing or medical engineering. The end of the road has not been reached in the construction field yet either. This is demonstrated by tunnel-like public aquariums with walls made of acrylic (Buchholz 2007, 122-123), which attract thill-seeking visitors to such places as Arnheim (“Burgers Zoo”), Copenhagen/Denmark (“Den Blå Planet”) or Barcelona (“L’Aquàrium”). An architectural design that is considered to be no less spectacular than the tented roof of the Olympic Stadium in Munich – which is difficult to beat – is the Art Museum in Graz/Austria, which was opened in September 2003 and was called “A friendly alien” by its architects Peter Cook (*1936) and Colin Fournier (*1944): “It looks like a cross between a Martian and a whale with its outer shell made of computer-moulded PMMA panels that are coloured to be transparent blue. […] The highlight: the 930 neon lights hidden underneath the acrylic cover turn the shell of the building into a gigantic screen when required, on which texts or film sequences can be presented” (Buchholz 2007, 121-122).
The German pavilion at the EXPO 2010 world exposition in Shanghai, which had an area of 6,000 square metres, also opted for acrylic – with the shimmering blue illusion of an underwater seascape and numerous exhibits.
The history of acrylic and the applications for it is the “ongoing renaissance of a product with a long tradition” (Wittig 2007, 105). In view of this, there is no doubt that acrylic has a bright future, even though major changes are currently being made to the company background, as was already the case 20 years ago:
In March 1999, Hüls AG (including Röhm GmbH) merged with Degussa, which was based in Essen (and operated as Evonik Degussa GmbH as part of the newly formed corporation Evonik Industries AG from 2007 onwards). “After what was at the time Röhm & Haas no longer bought any acetone cyanohydrin from it, Degussa established its own production facilities for both monomer and polymer methyl methacrylate. In 1996, these operations were transferred to a new subsidiary, Agomer GmbH. With the merger of the parent companies, Röhm GmbH and Agomer GmbH merged as well” (Wittig 2007, 101).
Between 2016 and 2018, Evonik Industries AG generated average annual sales of EUR 1.8 billion with its methacrylate operations at 18 production locations all over the world (total sales in 2018: EUR 15 billion). The earnings before taxes, interest and depreciation/amortisation amounted on average to EUR 350 million in the same period, according to the company from Essen. Despite this, Evonik divested its acrylic division in March 2019 and sold it to the US financial investor Advent International for what it quoted as EUR 3 billion (https://corporate.evonik.de/de/presse/pages/article.aspx?articleId=109128). This decision, which was already announced last year, is part of a large corporate restructuring exercise; the reasons given for it were “susceptibility to economic volatility” and the fluctuating earnings situation of the methacrylate operations. Evonik reports that it intends in future to concentrate on more profitable areas in the special chemicals field that are less subject to economic cycles. Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) pointed out that this was not least of all a concession to Ruhrkohle AG, the majority shareholder (interest: 64.3 per cent): “The majority owner of the chemical company is RAG-Stiftung, which uses the dividends to finance the long-term costs of the coal mining operations that were discontinued last year.”
k-online.de wishes Advent International Corporation all the best and hopes that it achieves as much success with acrylic as those who have been responsible for the business in the past 90 years.
By the way: Acrylic in East Germany
After the end of the Second World War, one of the three acrylic production locations of Röhm & Haas GmbH was in Soviet-occupied territory: the plant in Mittenwalde/Brandenburg, which was “hardly affected at all by the war” (Wittig 2007, 63). Before it was dismantled in July and August 1945, the “occupying power studied the production operations closely, questioned individual company employees in detail about the technical processes and even asked them to move to the Soviet Union. Since they feared that they might be abducted by force, the employees concerned thought it was advisable for them to respond to this offer by fleeing from the Soviet zone” (Wittig 2007, 63).
Following the establishment of the German Democratic Republic on 7. October 1949, no attempts were made to restart plastic production at the Mittenwalde location. Instead of this, the “Volkseigene Betrieb” (VEB) Erdöl- und Erdgaserkundung Mittenwalde was formed there on 1. October 1962 (now: Untergrundspeicher- und Geotechnologie-Systeme GmbH). Acrylic was not manufactured in East Germany initially. Although the “country of workers and farmers” expected plastics to boost the economy emphatically, the focus was on polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride and polystyrene (Schrader 1962, 14). For the time being, the chances for polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) were poor: “After 1945, the end of the 2nd World War with its devastating consequences, such as the division of Germany into two halves, no equipment was available on the territory of what is now the German Democratic Republic which permitted the production of such a thermoplastic in all its versatility” (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz, undated, 3).
With the chemistry programme introduced on 4. November 1958, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) focussed on expansion of plastics production, with the aim of stimulating an “economic miracle” of its own under the motto: “Chemistry provides bread – prosperity – beauty”.
“Improving the standard of living of all working people is one of the most important tasks of the social system in socialist society. […] Tremendous efforts are being made in the GDR to increase the production of plastics or to start the production of such plastics, for which the necessary conditions exist or can be created. […] If more new, modern materials are to be available, then this assignment must be tackled first of all via the rapid establishment or reconstruction of production facilities, i.e. chemical factories” (Schrader 1962, 9).
This applied not least of all to PMMA: “In view of the massive growth of our publicly owned industry, the lack of such a plastic was making itself felt to an increasing extent, so that this gap had to be closed as quickly as possible by carrying out development work” (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz, undated, 3).
“The conditions for synthesis of the methacrylic acid methyl ester needed for this purpose were […] satisfied particularly effectively” at VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz in the town of Wittenberg (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz, undated, 3). The reason: “Acetone and sodium cyanide are the source materials, in addition to sulphuric acid and methanol”. Sodium cyanide “can be obtained by blending calcium cyanamide (nitrolime) with coal and sodium chloride (common salt) in electric furnaces. Piesteritz is the first place that comes to mind when one hears the word nitrolime” (Raubach 1960, 108). The methacrylic acid methyl ester produced “for all practical purposes represents a semi-finished product from which transparent solid material is produced by polymerisation. This product was given the trade name ‘Piacryl’ (Piesteritzer Acrylate)” (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz, undated, 3).
The new acrylic production equipment in Piesteritz came into operation in 1958 (Chemistry Museum 2004; see also Beneke 2006, 26-27). The plastics portfolio of the company also included the melamine resin moulding compound Meladur, the dicyandiamid resin moulding compound Didi and the urea resin foam plastic Piatherm (Böhme and Ludwig 2012, 41). Piacryl consisted of the materials P I, P II, P S, P SL 10 and P SL 5, which differed in their thickness tolerances and optical distraction properties (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz 1967, 3). Like acrylic, Piacryl was also “produced by polymerisation with initiators in silicate glass moulds” (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz 1967, 2), to be more exact: between panes of silicate glass (Raubach 1960, 108-109). “Such a ‘glass block’ is a wonderful sight. It is so transparent that we can still read the finest of texts with a thickness of 2 m […]. The only other material that has such outstanding optical properties is heavy crystal glass “(Raubach 1960, 110).
Like acrylic, organic glass “made in East Germany” could be thermoformed, cut, sawn, filed, planed, milled, drilled, rasped, turned, threaded and ground (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz 1958, 5-11). The range of applications at a glance:
Aircraft, vehicle and boat manufacturing,
Safety glass for protective goggles, sight glasses, covers,
Insulation components (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz 1967, 2; Just 1962, 150, on the other hand, states: “mediocre electrical properties, not in common use as an insulation material“),
Bone substitute (jaw, skull), prosthetic joints, dental prosthetics (dental braces, dentures, crowns, bridges), “artificial kidneys” (VEB Stickstoffwerk Piesteritz 1967, 2), illuminated surgical instruments, biological and medical specimens.
A highly versatile jack of (almost) all trades, although Raubach 1960, 112 dampens the euphoria a little: “There has up to now never been and there never will be a material with which everything can be made. It goes without saying that acrylic has limitations too. Its shortcomings are, for example, the formation of small cracks and its low resistance to most organic solvents with the exception of benzenes. Extensive improvements have, however, already been made here as well, e.g. via copolymerisation such substances as acrylonitrile”.
The Piacryl story in Piesteritz ended in 1990, when the GDR was history. VEB Agrochemie Piesteritz became Stickstoffwerke AG Wittenberg-Piesteritz (Chemistry Museum 2004). In 1993, SKW Stickstoffwerke Piesteritz GmbH was established, which built on the location’s traditions, although it did not act as its legal successor. It focusses on the production of nitrogen fertilisers. The plant is now the biggest manufacturer of ammonia and urea in Germany.
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Eva Wittig: Shaping the future for 100 years. Röhm GmbH from 1907 to 2007. Munich: Peschke, 112 pages